For almost six years after her car crash in 1993, Melissa Felteau expended much of her energy wanting things to be different from what they were. She’d dream about her “old” self, only to wake up a new, confused, and confusing version of that self.
Prior to her crash, when she sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), she had been a master swimmer, a skier, and kayaker. She’d held a top job as director of public relations for Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital in Ontario, Canada, and she had a robust social life. Little seemed out of reach. But after her crash — at age 31 — she couldn’t read or write. She had a hard time following conversations, and she couldn’t get organized or remember anything. “It was a long, slow, painful, depressing recovery,” she said.
Worst of all, the mental chatter in her head wouldn’t quit. It was relentless — all the talking, criticizing, judging. “The injury was devastating to my self-image. I told myself over and over that I was no longer loveable, that I was no longer good enough,” says Melissa. “More than anything else, the brain injury left me with a residue of unworthiness — a deep soul wound. I was desperate to buoy myself back to myself, to find some kind of inspiration.”
When a friend invited her to a yoga class to help with her persistent physical pain, Melissa discovered meditation. She felt a change immediately.
Learning to let go
The role of non-traditional treatments to help in recovery after brain injury is finding a more formal place in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. These treatments can include meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture, energy balance, biodfeedback, and craniosacral therapy (basically, gentle manipulation of the skull and its cranial sutures to enhance the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid, and release restrictions in the connective tissue that protects the brain.)
“People tend to look at the brain after TBI as a damaged or pulled muscle, and that’s not right. There is physical damage to the brain, yes, but there is also trauma to the brain that needs to be looked at neurologically and psychologically,” says Rick Leskowitz, M.D., director of the Integrative Medicine Project at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. “The use of integrative treatments is really interesting. Clearly, they have benefits for people. We don't know why or how they work, but we do know that they work and are therefore a very promising line of study.”
At Spaulding, clinicians who have traditional degrees in medicine or rehabilitation therapies use integrative methods to treat the body, mind, and spirit of their patients with TBI or chronic pain, in addition to using traditional treatments. “Craniosacral therapy has proved to have high potential especially with people with TBI. We need more research, but the experiential data is quite telling,” says Dr. Leskowitz. “After all, the skull moves. It is not a box. There is movement, pulsation along the sutures on the skull. When that pulsing is regular and steady, the brain is healthy. People trained in craniosacral therapy can loosen these restrictions to bring the pulsation back to normal.” Research studies conducted more than 100 years ago by Dr. William Sutherland — the father of osteopathy in the cranial field — proved that cranial sutures were, in fact, designed to express small degrees of motion.
Mindfulness meditation — or mentally focusing on being in the present moment — has also proven an effective tool to help people with cognitive and behavioral issues after TBI. With meditation of all kinds — from chanting to visual imagery — people can make peace with their new self and not get swept up in the constant maelstrom of mental obsessions. “If you are truly living in the present moment, you can let go of the past and the future; they no longer have a hold on you. That can be incredibly freeing,” says Dr. Leskowitz.
Within a few weeks of starting to meditate regularly, Melissa Felteau felt the benefits. It was as if a fog had started to lift, she says; as if once again she was the main character in her life, right there on stage. “My family noticed, too,” she says. “I didn’t have to withdraw as much; I could deal with more stimuli. I was less agitated, moody, and far less tired. That goes a long way with your mental outlook on life.”
Since that first yoga class where she was introduced to meditation, Melissa has transformed. Wanting to learn more about the power of meditation and mindfulness, especially as they relate to healing after TBI, she went to study at the Omega Institute with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., an internationally-known scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. Currently, Melissa is close to earning her master’s degree in adult education and has collaborated on several studies looking at how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can reduce symptoms of depression in people with TBI.
In a pilot study, Melissa and another facilitator worked with a group of almost twenty people of different ages, backgrounds, and brain injuries. “We taught mindfulness meditation, which, with practice, helps people learn to be present and aware of their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations,” she says. “People learn that by paying attention to their breathing, they can calm down their minds; and from there they can find a place to learn, to know that they have a choice to let judgments go, and to respond rather than react.” Findings from the study showed that meditation can be an alternative to drug therapy for some people with depression after TBI. “All three of our small studies in neurotrauma have shown that almost 60 percent of study participants recover from clinical depression,” she says. “In addition, their anxiety levels decrease and they report higher energy — all of which are significant findings for people who have suffered from the misery of depression.”
Other research on the subject has shown that meditation changes the brain physiologically by reducing cortisol levels, which are associated with stress and depression.
Recently, Melissa and her research colleagues were awarded a grant by the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation to conduct a larger multi-site randomized control study to look at meditation’s effect on depression and memory after TBI.